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Feds plan Hunter Creek swap

Jeremy Heiman

One down and two to go.

The Forest City Lode, one of three privately owned mining claims remaining in the Hunter Creek-Van Horn Park area, is soon to be deeded to the Forest Service in a complicated land swap. However, two remaining private parcels, or inholdings, still pose the threat of development in the area that has been described as “Aspen’s back yard.”

The other two parcels of buildable size are the 8.3-acre Virginia Pet claim, owned by Bill and Janet Mohrman, and the 9.8-acre Little Chief claim, just legally transferred to the ownership of Lyle Reeder on Thursday. The Little Chief was previously held by Reeder as security against a debt owed by the estate of Steven Wishart.

The nearby Hummingbird Lode, formerly owned by Jim and Merrilee Auster, was purchased by Pitkin County Open Space program with help from the city of Aspen and private donations in 1998.

Al Grimshaw, of the U.S. Forest Service’s Aspen district, said some tiny slivers of patented mining claims remain near the Hummingbird, but they’re to narrow and steep to be practical as building sites.

“You might fit a tent on them, but that would be about it,” he said.

Grimshaw said when the Forest Service started working on the land swap involving the Forest City claim last year, an attempt was made to include the Little Chief and the Virginia Pet. But it was unsuccessful and no action is now being pursued to bring the other two under public ownership.

Pitkin County Commissioner Dorothea Farris said both the county and the Forest Service, as a general rule, want to eliminate private holdings in the midst of federal lands, and especially in Hunter Creek. It’s expensive to extend county services to people who build in remote areas. And many who use the forest for recreation would just as soon not see buildings there.

“To the degree you eliminate inholdings, you eliminate a lot of problems that could arise from development in places like that,” Farris said.

The Forest Service, as a general rule, wants to acquire inholdings because it makes management of National Forest lands easier, Grimshaw said. If no private lands remain within the forest, no one is trying to build roads through federal lands, he said.

Eliminating private parcels within National Forest land saves the Forest Service the trouble of marking boundaries, as the agency is required to do by law, he said.

Reeder, owner of the Little Chief, said his parcel was appraised by the Forest Service recently, and he’s not pleased with the result. Forest officials at first told him they could appraise the land without reference to the Rural and Remote zone district in which the parcel lies.

But when the appraisal was performed, he said, officials told him they had to take the downzoning into consideration, lowering the value. Rural and Remote zoning, allowing only 1,000-square-foot cabins, was applied to much of Pitkin County’s backcountry land in 1995.

“So it’s worth more to me than to the appraisers,” Reeder said. “With the downzoning, I don’t see that a trade with the Forest Service is a practical way to go.”

Reeder said he had discussed a trade involving a Forest Service parcel at the base of Smuggler Mountain, but didn’t go through with it because of the appraisals.

“Governmental entities have a reluctance to put the real value on the properties,” Reeder said. He said he is will probably apply to the county for permission to build a house on the property.

The threat of development of a monster home on the 10-acre Hummingbird Lode, a highly visible 10-acre parcel perched on a ridge above the Hunter Creek Valley, sparked the push to bring that property into public hands. Former owners Jim and Merrilee Auster had the parcel – with a development approval for a house of unlimited size already in place – for sale when it was purchased as open space for $5.2 million. The Austers donated half the price and received $2.6 million for the parcel.

The transaction that will turn the Forest City Lode over to the Forest Service will bring a total of 61 acres of private land under Forest Service control. In return, Stoney Davis will receive $180,000 in cash and 7.3 acres of federal land in the Castle Creek Valley, suitable for a home site.

The Forest Service has determined an environmental assessment of the transaction, called the Davis Land Exchange, is necessary under the National Environmental Protection Act. The land exchange was proposed as a settlement for a title claim against the Forest Service.

In the transaction the Forest Service will receive four parcels of land, including the Forest City claim. One of the others is in Little Annie Basin and one north of the Independence ghost town. The fourth, in Coal Basin, near Redstone, is part of the property formerly owned by Mid-Continent Resources, which operated coal mines in the basin.


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